Bangladesh prepares to conduct the world’s largest-ever measles immunization campaign
By Kirsty McIvor
DHAKA, Bangladesh, 17 February 2006 – Some 33.5 million Bangladeshi children are the target of the world’s largest-ever measles immunization campaign. The government – with support from UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners – is preparing supplies, health workers, volunteers and the public for the start of this unprecedented three-week campaign, which begins on 25 February.
The scale of this campaign will make the measles vaccine available for every child under the age of 10, including those who have already been immunized against the disease. The aim is to accelerate and sustain a reduction in the number of deaths from measles. Currently nearly 20,000 Bangladeshi children die every year from measles.
One such young boy, Hossain, died in his mother’s arms three months ago.
Fahtema wanted to get Hossain immunized. “But I couldn’t because they asked for 20 taka,” she said. It might seem a small amount, but for Fahtema it was a choice between spending a day’s wages on food for her family – or on one injection.
Fahtema says Hossain had been out playing as usual when he first got sick. When the fever started she took him to a doctor who prescribed paracetamol and rest. After three days of fever he developed the measles rash, but Fahtema’s neighbours said there was no need to go to the doctor twice.
“Then he got a bit better, and the rash went down for three days,” she says. “For those three days he was playing with the other children. On the day he died he was playing with other children, he was walking along the road as usual, and for the first time since he’d got sick, he had drank some sugar cane juice.”
Fahtema had left for work early that morning; when she arrived back home she found Hossain lying listlessly in their small hut. “I came back and held him in my lap,” she recalls, “to give him a little bit of water. He drank one sip and died. I was holding him when he died.”
The eldest of Fahtema’s children, Khadeza, 13, misses her little brother. “If someone gave him something he’d be so happy,” she says with a sad smile. “All the time he’d be running or play-fighting with the other children. Always laughing.”
Khadeza earns 700 taka ($10) a month as a domestic worker, one of the most common forms of child labour. Fahtema makes just 500 or 600 taka ($8-9) a month sorting rubbish and recycling. The rent for the family’s 3m x 3m bamboo hut in a stagnant Dhaka slum is 600 taka a month. With all of Fahtema’s earnings being spent on rent, the family – which now counts five children – relies on Khadeza’s monthly earnings for the month’s food and other costs. The family has not heard from Fahtema’s husband – the children’s father – since Hossain died, let alone received money from him.
Fahtema is making sure her other children get a measles vaccine. At least three of them will be receiving a free vaccine during the ‘Measles Catch Up Campaign’. She is also letting her neighbours know the free vaccines are coming. Many people from this close-knit slum community, who literally live in each other’s pockets, were also infected during the measles outbreak that took Hossain. It was the community who pulled together and donated what money they had for Hossain’s funeral.
The first phase of the Measles Catch Up Campaign began in September last year, when 1.5 million children were vaccinated through support from the Government of Bangladesh, the Government of Japan, the Centre for Disease Control, the WHO and UNICEF. Phase two begins on 25 February. For both phases UNICEF Bangladesh has ensured both an adequate supply of vaccines and the cold chain equipment necessary to deliver them, along with additional syringes. UNICEF has also provided support in raising community awareness about the need for vaccinations.
From 25 February vaccination teams will be visiting schools and outreach sites, railway stations, bus stations, parks, jails and slums to make sure excluded and the invisible children are also covered, such as Fahtema’s children, who are excluded from mainstream centres because of extreme poverty.